By Jerry Markon and Ben Hubbard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
A Saudi-funded academy in Fairfax County used textbooks as recently as 2006 that compared Jews and Christians to apes and pigs, told eighth-graders that these groups are "the enemies of the believers" and diagrammed for high school students where to cut off the hands and feet of thieves, a Washington Post review of the books has found.
Saudi officials acknowledged that the textbooks used at the Islamic Saudi Academy had contained inflammatory material since at least the mid-1990s but said they ordered revisions in 2006. School administrators said that they have been scrambling to change the texts and that all potentially offensive passages will be gone by the coming academic year. But, they said, teachers have always been told to avoid inflammatory material in the classroom.
A sampling of 2006-07 Islamic studies textbooks showed that much of the controversial material had been removed. At least one book still contained passages that extolled jihad and martyrdom, called for victory over one's enemies and said the killing of adulterers and apostates was "justified."
The academy, founded in 1984, has about 1,000 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 and is separated into boys' and girls' schools. It is the only Saudi-funded school in the United States. About 70 percent of the academy's students are U.S. citizens drawn from the region's Muslim communities. About a quarter are Saudi.
The school has leased land from Fairfax for two decades and has been the subject of growing controversy. Last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the academy's textbooks contain passages that advocate violence, less than a year after calling on the State Department to close the school unless it can prove that it is not teaching religious intolerance.
As a small group of protesters gathered recently outside the academy, less than 15 miles from the District, Fairfax officials were weighing what to do about the school's $2.2 million annual lease, which is signed by the Saudi Embassy and is "contingent upon" State Department approval. In May, the county Board of Supervisors extended the lease for another year, the fifth time it has been renewed since 1988, but Fairfax has since asked the State Department to determine whether the county should continue leasing the property to the school.
Fairfax spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said the county extended the school's lease until 2009 because "there seemed no reason not to" but decided to ask for State Department guidance after the commission report on the textbooks came out. "We're looking at this as a land use case," she said. "We're not capable of determining whether textbooks contain language that promotes violence."
She would not say what the county might do based on any State Department response, but she noted that the lease has a provision saying Fairfax can terminate the agreement if the board determines that is necessary for public "health, safety and welfare." The State Department has not responded to the county, and a department spokesman said late Friday that he was unfamiliar with the letter.
"The content of the books from Saudi Arabia has been a concern, and we have received assurances from the Saudi government that they would review and make changes to the textbooks in Saudi Arabia by the beginning of the 2008 school year," said the spokesman, Gonzalo Gallegos. "We will wait to see what changes have been made."
The debate is befuddling to many affiliated with the academy, which has a graduation rate of nearly 100 percent, sends students to prestigious colleges and trains U.S. soldiers in Arabic -- yet also counts among its alumni Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a 1999 graduate convicted of plotting with al-Qaeda to kill President Bush.
Graduates said that the school taught respect for other religions and that teachers avoided controversial material. The academy has two campuses; the main one is on U.S. 1 south of Alexandria.
"It's just a normal school with one Islamic period during the day. I didn't get any hate teachings out of it or anything that was going to turn me into an extreme mood," said Fatima Abdallah, 29, a 1997 graduate.
Other students said material from the textbooks was sometimes taught in class, although it was unclear how often. "I'm not saying that there wasn't anything that said Islam is the best, everyone else is wrong," said Ahmet Sahin, 31, a 1994 graduate who has worked in Iraq and Kuwait as a Defense Department accounting contractor. "Every religion has that, but there wasn't any emphasis on violent jihad."
The Saudi ambassador to the United States is chairman of the school's board of directors, and the kingdom subsidizes expenses beyond the academy's $3,000 annual tuition for non-Saudi students. Saudi students attend free. Saudi officials said they have little day-to-day involvement in running the academy.
School administrators said teachers were told to keep any inflammatory material out of the classroom. "I taught for 15 years,'' said Dana Nicholas, assistant principal of the girls' school. "I would not have stayed if I thought that my students that were coming into my classroom and dealing with me every day, as a Christian, as a woman, if they were being taught this kind of thing in the Islamic class.''
She is one of numerous non-Muslim staff members at the academy, which was founded in 1984 on the grounds of an old Christian school in Fairfax and moved to the U.S. 1 campus in 1988. Saudi officials said the school was started to educate the children of Saudi diplomats and other Washington area Muslims who had difficulty finding Arabic and Islamic studies programs.
Saudi officials acknowledged that the controversial materials were in the school's Islamic studies textbooks until at least 2006. "We've always conceded there are problems with the textbooks,'' said one Saudi government source, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the textbook issue inside the kingdom. "There are some things that shouldn't be taught to children.''
Saudi officials said inflammatory material was gradually added to the kingdom's textbooks starting in the mid-1990s as religious hard-liners gained power in the kingdom's Education Ministry.
For example, an eighth-grade monotheism book from 2005-06 contains a Koranic verse about Allah turning people into apes and pigs. The textbook states in a footnote: "It is said: The apes are the people of the Sabbath, the Jews. The swine are the unbelievers of Jesus' table, the Christians."
In 2006, in reaction to a report criticizing the textbooks by the Center for Religious Freedom of Freedom House and the Institute for Gulf Affairs, the Saudi Embassy ordered changes, Saudi officials said.
In interviews last week at the main location -- a tree-shaded red-brick building with a small sign visible from the road that simply says "ISA" -- administrators said they worked day and night in summer 2006 to carry out the embassy's mandate. Divided into three committees, they revised textbooks by whiting out words, chopping out paragraphs and creating makeshift books. Because the process was hasty, they said, they missed some things, but they have continued the revisions during the past two years and plan to roll out a new line of books this fall.
Faridah Turkistani, the girls' school principal, said: "We were told [to take out] whatever is controversial. 'Think like an American, and if you feel like there is anything that will upset any nationality or any ethnicity or anything, you know, take it out.' ''
She spoke in a room near the school's entryway, where walls bear photographs of Saudi royal family members and Arabic inscriptions, along with a picture of an American flag. Bulletin boards in the school's hallways showcase student government, model United Nations and sports teams.
Another display depicts a veiled girl and a girl wearing a tank top and jeans. The Arabic at the top reads: "Your veil will protect you as the shell protects the pearl."
Even after the 2006 revisions, a 12th-grade Islamic studies textbook used in 2006-07 contained a reference to jihad as "the pinnacle of Islam" and said: "There is no security or stability except in strength and victory over the enemies. In martyrdom in the path of Allah is a type of honorable life."
Amin Bonnah, an assistant professor in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, said that jihad can have several meanings, including internal struggle, and that he read the passage "not as a call for jihad but as a call for fighting your enemies."
Bonnah, who reviewed Arabic passages from the academy's textbooks, said that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups would interpret that as fighting America and that the reference to martyrdom "means one thing: to kill for God. . . . Martyrdom is what they are doing in Iraq today or Gaza.''
Nina Shea, a commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, expressed concern that this and other passages could help radicalize students. Noting that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were Saudi, she said, "Saudi Arabia, of all countries, needs to be quite clear about what's permitted in jihad and what isn't.''
She added that the school's efforts to revise the textbooks have fallen short. "They may have ripped out some pages, but we don't know what they ripped out and whited out, so it's difficult to make any comparisons," she said.
Charles Haynes, senior scholar for religious freedom at the First Amendment Center in the District, said the school "deserves credit for trying to clean up the textbooks. That's a big job, given the long history of these kinds of materials being used in Saudi Arabia. They made an effort. They probably need to do better."